In the market for a luxury plug-in hybrid sports utility vehicle? The BMW X5 xDrive40e and Volvo XC90 T8 fit the bill, but which is better? Ben Griffin has driven both – here’s his verdict.
The UK’s biggest selling plug-in hybrid is still the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, probably because it’s relatively cheap, practical and capable of going off-road. But for what it offers in terms of value for money, it loses in prestige.
For those who have deeper pockets and want added luxury, there are a few plug-in hybrid alternatives including the X5 xDrive40e PHEV and the new Volvo XC90 T8. But which should you go for out of the two, the German or the Swede, and why?
Volvo XC90 T8 vs BMW X5 PHEV: Design
The facelifted BMW X5 seems to divide opinion when compared with its predecessor, but we think it was a necessary freshen up. It’s still beefy and imposing but looks more purposefully crafted plus you instantly know it is a BMW.
Volvo decided to roll with a crossover vibe for the new XC90. Somehow it looks smaller (although the dimensions are on a par with the X5 and its other competitors) and a touch less rugged, but the Thor’s Hammer daytime running lights, front bumper and single-piece grille add some meatiness.
Inside the BMW X5 is a comfortable, well-built interior, but for all of its build quality and sensible design it lacks the same panache as a Mercedes. Fortunately the cream leather helps improve the situation and everything feels capable of surviving family life.
The Swede is also somewhat understated, but it is simple, unfussy and designed to put everything you need in a logical place. The addition of a portrait touchscreen display means a lot of physical buttons have been removed, mirroring that of a Tesla Model S and Model X.
This means turning off the XC90’s various safety systems or adjusting the two-zone temperature requires a quick smartphone-esque swipe, slide or press, which is intuitive but you could argue it can sometimes require more attention than it should.
Both cars are easily recognisable and will be hard to miss, but the BMW is going to get more attention, while the Volvo boasts great attention to detail and a more technologically-advanced feel.
Volvo XC90 T8 vs BMW X5 PHEV: Practicality
Volvo’s SPA architecture underpins the new XC90 and this is what separates it from all of its current competitors. Being designed with a hybrid powertrain in mind has meant there is no loss of boot space or the third row of seating.
The BMW, in comparison, had to lose the third row of seats to make way for the rear-mounted battery pack and the boot space takes a 150-litre hit, making it less shopping-friendly.
So while the 451-litre boot of the XC90 is beaten by the BMW X5’s 500-litre offering, the latter can only seat five people. 49 litres extra for the loss of two seats is a big sacrifice, especially when folding those rearmost seats down in the Volvo increases the total to 1,102 litres.
Essentially, then, the Volvo can hold five people and a lot of stuff whereas the X5 has to make a choice. To make matters worse, fold all the seats down in the T8 and you end up with 1,951 litres, which also betters the X5’s 1,720 litres.
Both cars offer split-folding rear seats and the third row of seating in the XC90 can accommodate adults up to 5ft 7 inches (170cm), which means more than just space for kids. Both also have automatic tailgates that save you the hassle of opening the boot.
As for towing capacity, the Volvo XC90 T8 can manage 750kg unbraked and 2,400kg braked. The X5 can do up to 2,700kg braked.
The BMW is a practical vehicle that can take on the big outdoors and emerge in one piece, but Volvo has managed to combine the benefits of adding an electrical motor and battery without impeding interior space. We call that a victory.
Winner: Volvo XC90 T8
Volvo XC90 T8 vs BMW X5 PHEV: Performance & handling
The extra grunt of the Volvo XC90 T8 comes into its own here, as it can hit 0-62mph in 5.6 seconds, whereas the BMW takes 6.8 seconds. In fairness, both cars build up speed with plenty of enthusiasm, but neither will really excite either.
This is perhaps down to the instant, admittedly sizable dollop of torque afforded by their respective electric motors, which makes acceleration rather linear. Even so, the XC90 T8’s 600Nm – significantly more than the 450Nm xDrive40e – has the edge.
Both cars use an eight-speed automatic and neither really can be felt as change up or down a gear, even with your foot planted. This makes both cars incredibly smooth and able to curb the revvy nature of their four-cylinder petrol engines.
In fact, both cars are eerily quiet, with only a touch of wind noise and the drag of the tyres ruining blissfully quiet motoring. It’s relaxing in a way most diesels can only dream of.
Volvo’s all-wheel drive system can shift power from its front wheel default to all wheels and even just the rear if the situation requires it, aiding traction in more slippery conditions.
BMW’s X5, meanwhile, can also distribute torque between the front and rear wheels, allowing the xDrive system to compensate for understeer and oversteer as well as provide maximum traction.
As for handling, both cars are more nimble than their size would suggest and the edge of grip is way beyond what most people would ever need, especially if you have loved ones onboard. The Volvo feels a tad more planted, while the X5 a little more energetic.
A close fight, this one, but ultimately the XC90 T8’s greater performance lands it the winning blow.
Winner: Volvo XC90 T8
Volvo XC90 T8 vs BMW X5 PHEV: Economy & efficiency
Plug-in hybrids offer great fuel economy but there is a catch. With the battery charged, you can travel a reasonable number of miles on electric alone, saving you from using any fuel, or it can help the car pull away from the lights – a time when a lot of fuel is used.
But, and here’s the disclaimer, the extra weight of the hybrid powertrain becomes a dead weight when it is out of juice, meaning the combustion engine has more work to do until you can recharge the battery. This becomes an issue on longer journeys where a recharge is unlikely.
BMW’s smaller 9kWh battery means the X5 manages approximately 19 miles less on electric alone, resulting in overall fuel economy is 92.4mpg. In the XC90 T8 you can go around 25 miles and the claimed fuel economy is 134.5mpg.
Daily commutes up to 37 miles see the X5’s figure drop to 42.5mpg, making it slightly more expensive to run on longer journeys than the XC90. Beyond 37 miles and BMW says the fuel economy drops to 25.7mpg.
Volvo is less honest about how its fuel economy figures, stating only the headline 134.5mpg, but undoubtedly achieving that figure will take the driving skills of a saint (assuming it’s even possible). Factoring in similar kerb weights and engine displacement, the average figure will be considerably lower.
In CO2 emissions land, the Volvo XC90 is noticeably better. Just 49g/km is emitted from the twin-exit exhaust, compared with 77g/km for the X5, which means the latter narrowly misses out on the London congestion charge limit and will be pricier from a business perspective.
There is, of course, the fact both cars can do short journeys without emitting any local emissions, which is great for making the school run cleaner, but the increased range of the XC90 means less time spent topping up on electric so it is greener overall. Therefore it is the overall winner here.
Winner: Volvo XC90 T8
Volvo XC90 T8 vs BMW X5 PHEV: Equipment & value
Navigation is a standard fixture on all new BMW models these days, but the 12.3-inch TFT display and infotainment system in the Volvo equivalent is too (an upgrade on the standard eight-inch system, in fact).
It is, however, worth pointing out the BMW is a luxury car and one that costs £8,100 less than the XC90 T8, which means you could spec the X5 up to a more comparable level and still have change, especially once you factor in things like Volvo’s Winter Pack (£575) and bodykit upgrades (£3,400) – upgrades we can see a lot of people tempted by.
Even so, the T8 is packed with generous extras (the UK spec is deliberately higher) including full leather upholstery, LED daytime running lights, two-zone climate control, a plethora of safety systems (more on that later), 19-inch alloys, keyless entry, panoramic roof and a crystal gear selector.
Standard trim on the X5 PHEV includes two-zone automatic climate control, xenon headlights, LED fog lights, Dakota leather upholstery, heated front seats, 40:20:40 split folding rear seats, self-velling rear air suspension (an extra on the XC90 T8) and DAB digital radio.
Tough call here. We’ll call it a draw because both are generously specced and the lower price of the X5 makes up for the fact it lacks quite the same level of luxury.
Volvo XC90 T8 vs BMW X5 PHEV: Safety
As safe as the BMW X5 is, the Volvo XC90 T8 scored highest in the Euro NCAP SUV test and was the safest car tested in 2015 overall, scoring 100 per cent in the Safety Assist category, which marks electronic safety systems like lane assist.
It also scored 97 per cent for adult occupant safety, 87 per cent for child occupant safety and 72 per cent when it comes to pedestrians. Curtain airbags for every passenger, the use of high-strength boron steel and a long crumple zone play a role in the result.
The current X5 is yet to undertake the Euro NCAP test (and at this rate is unlikely ever to), but we expect it would get five stars like its predecessor based on the fact it also offers a healthy list of safety technologies and curtain airbags.
Because the XC90 is top of the tree, the X5’s lack of a safety rating currently means nothing anyway. It could be safer, in theory, but there’s no way to know. Therefore the XC90 T8 wins.
Winner: Volvo XC90 T8
Volvo XC90 T8 vs BMW X5 PHEV: Which is best?
Working out which car is better has proven to be a bit of a headache-inducing process. Both are truly great machines that fly the hybrid flag with style and conviction while offering buyers a touch of luxury, performance, practicality and eco-friendliness.
You could argue a Tesla Model X makes more sense, but hybrids are flexible enough to go anywhere without any real planning – electric cars have no back-up plan. As such, there’s a case to be made for both the T8 and xDrive40e.
We would say the BMW is a touch more exciting to drive, offers more prestige and is cheaper but comes with less equipment and is incapable of carrying seven passengers. The Volvo, meanwhile, feels like a true step forward for hybrids and laughs in the face of compromise.
£8,100 is, of course, a lot of money so some buyers may already find the XC90 out of their reach while the extra economy is going to take even longer to recoup the difference in fuel savings. But it is a safer proposition and worried mums and dads may use that to justify the larger initial outlay.
As for really big families, if you need seven seats and want a hybrid, the choice is simple. Go Volvo (or consider the all-electric Model X) because the BMW plug-in hybrid is two seats short.
Based on the overall score of each category in our versus article, the XC90 T8 emerges as the better car but that fact is reflected nicely in its price. If you can afford it, it will serve you well. If not, the X5 is hardly a hand-me-down.
Overall winner: Volvo XC90 T8